Two minutes. That's how long it took me to realize I had made a big mistake.
The blue team was good. They were big. They were fast. They knew how to play hockey. From the moment the puck was dropped to the ice, they controlled the game. They moved the puck back and forth between them like a pinball, across the blue line, into the corner, back to the point. Once they were in the zone they settled down, took their time with it, waited for the best opportunity. They were like five wolves circling their prey. When the shot came it was nothing more than a dark blur. The center slid across the front of the goal mouth, untouched, taking the puck and with one smooth motion turning it home with a sudden flick of the wrist. It hit the back of the net before the goalie even knew it was coming. Right between his legs. Or as they say on television, right through the five hole.
It was going to be a long night for the goalie on the red team. Which I wouldn't have minded so much if that goalie hadn't been a certain forty-eight-year-old idiot who let himself get talked into it.
"It's a thirty-and-over league," Vinnie had said. "Every Thursday night. No checking, no slapshots. They call it `slow puck.' You know, like `slow pitch' softball? `Slow puck' hockey, you get it?"
"I get it," I said.
"It's a lot of fun, Alex. You'll love it." Vinnie was my Indian friend. Vinnie LeBlanc, an Ojibwa, a member of the Bay Mills tribe, with a little bit of French Canadian in him, a little bit of Italian, and a little bit of God knows what else, likemost of the Indians around here. You couldn't see much Indian blood in him, just a hint of it in the face, around the eyes and cheekbones. He didn't have that Indian air about him, that slow and careful way of speaking. And unlike some of the Indians I've met, especially the tribes in Canada, he looked you right in the eye when he spoke to you.
Vinnie was an Ojibwa and proud of it. But he didn't live on the reservation anymore. He never drank. Not one drop, ever. He could put on a suit and pass for a downstate businessman. Or he could track a deer through the woods like he knew the inside of that animal's mind.
He had found me at the Glasgow Inn, sitting by the fireplace. I should have known something was up when he bought me a beer.
"I don't think so, Vinnie. I haven't been on skates in thirty years."
"How much you gotta skate?" he said. "You'll be in goal. C'mon, Alex, we really need ya."
"What happened to your regular goalie?"
"Ah, he has to give it a rest for a couple weeks," Vinnie said. "He sort of took one in the neck."
"I thought you said it was slow puck!"
"It was a fluke thing, Alex. It caught him right under the mask."
"Forget it, Vinnie. I'm not playing goalie."
"You were a catcher, right?" he said. "In double-A?"
"I played two years in triple-A," I said. "But so what?"
"It's the same thing. You wear pads. You wear a mask. You just catch a puck instead of a baseball."
"It's not the same thing."
"Alex, the Red Sky Raiders need you. You can't let us down."
I almost spit out my beer. "Red Sky Raiders? Are you kidding me?"
"It's a great name," he said.
"Sounds like a kamikaze squadron."
Red Sky was Vinnie's Ojibwa name. During hunting season, he did a lot of guide work, taking downstaters into the woods. He liked to use his nickname then, playing up the Indian thing. After all, he once told me, who are you going to hire to be your guide, a guy named Red Sky or a guy named Vinnie?
"Alex, Alex." He shook his head and looked into the fire.
Here it comes, I thought.
"It's just a fun little hockey league. Something to look forward to on a Thursday night. You know, instead of sitting around looking at the snow and going fucking insane."
"I thought you Indians were at peace with the seasons."
He gave me a look. "I got eight guys on my team. They're going to be very disappointed. We'll have to forfeit the game. All because a former professional athlete is afraid to put on some pads and play goal for us. You gonna just sit here on your butt all winter? Don't you ever get the urge to do anything, Alex? To actually use your body again?"
"You're breaking my heart, Vinnie. You really are."
"You can use Bradley's stuff. It's all new. Mask, blocker, glove, skates. What size do you wear?"
"Eleven," I said.
I didn't have much chance after that. Vinnie had been there when I needed him, taking care of the cabins while I was out making a fool of myself pretending to be a private investigator. So I certainly owed him one. And he was right, I was tired of siting around all winter. How bad could it be, right? Put on the pads and the mask, play some goal. It might even be fun.
It was fun all right. I flicked the puck out of the goal to the referee and he skated it back to center ice for another face-off. I barely had time to take a drink of water from my bottle when they were back in my zone again, moving the puck back and forth, looking for another shot. The blue center was skating around in front of my goal like he owned it. I had to keep peeking around him to follow the puck.
"Get this guy out of here," I said to anyone who could hear me. "Don't let him just stand here."
A long shot came from the blue line. I knocked the puck down, but before I could dive on it, the blue center knocked it into the net. Three minutes into the game, and I had given up two goals. The center did a little dance, waved his stick in the air, his teammates jumping all over him like they just won the Stanley Cup.
Vinnie skated by. "Hang in there, Alex," he said. "We'll try to give you a little more help."
I grabbed the front of his red jersey. "Vinnie, for God's sake, will you hit that guy or something? He's camped out right in front of me."
"There's no checking, remember? Alex, we're just playing for fun here."
"I'm not having any fun," I said. "You don't have to take his head off, just ... give him a little bump."
The blue center was skating around in wide circles now, bobbing his head. He was chanting to himself, something like, "Oh yeah, baby, oh yeah, oh yeah, oh baby, oh yeah."
I knew the type. It doesn't matter what sport you play, you always run into guys like this. In baseball, it was usually a first baseman or an outfielder. They came up to the plate with that swagger in their step. I'd ask them how they're doing as they're digging in, just because that's what you do in baseball, but they'd ignore me. First pitch is a strike, they look back at the umpire with that look. How dare you call a strike on me. I'd throw the ball back to the pitcher and then give him the sign for a high hard one. Guys like that need the fear of God put in them every once in a while, something to remind them that they're human just like the rest of us. If not a bolt of lightning then at least a good ninety-mile-per-hour fastball under their chin.
It was reassuring to see that hockey players had to deal with these guys, too. Vinnie smiled at me, took off a glove and adjusted his helmet strap. "Maybe just one little bump," he said.
I knew they played three ten-minute periods in this league, a concession to age and to the fact that most teams only had nine or ten players. So I only had twenty-seven more minutes to go. I slapped my stick on the ice. Go Red Sky Raiders.
Vinnie's men finally woke up and started playing some hockey. While the puck was in the opposite zone, I stood all alone in front of my goal, looking around at the Big Bear Arena. It was brand-new, built by the Sault tribe with money from the casino. There was a second rink on the other side, locker rooms in the middle, and a restaurant on the upper deck. The stands were mostly empty, just some women watching us. None of them looked like they were on our side. I pulled the mask away from my face, wiped away the sweat. The catcher's gear I wore a million years agothe chest protector and the shin padswas nothing compared to these goalie pads. It felt like I had a mattress tied to each leg.
The game started to get a little "chippy," as the hockey announcers like to say. The elbows were coming up in the corners, the sticks were hitting other sticks, maybe even a leg or two. There was only one referee, a little old guy skating around with a whistle in his hand, never daring to blow it. He was probably retired from a civil service job, never got in anybody's way his whole life and wasn't going to start now.
I finally stopped a couple shots. It wasn't like catching a baseball at all, I realized. A pitch in the dirt, you become a human wall. The glove goes down between your legs. You don't even try to catch it. You let it bounce off you, you throw the mask off, and then you pick it up. A hockey goalie can be more aggressive, move out of the net, cut off the angle.
"Att'sa way, Alex," Vinnie said. He was breathing hard. He bounced his stick off my pads. "Now you're getting it."
Toward the end of the first period, there was a loose puck in front of the net. I dove on it. The blue center came at me hard, stopping right in front of me. He cut his skates into the ice, sending a full spray right into my face. The old shower trick. I had seen it on television a thousand times, now I got to experience it in person.
As I got up I stuck my stick into the hollow behind his knee. He turned around and cross-checked me. Two hands on his stick and wham, right across my shoulders.
I looked into his eyes. A cold blue. Pupils dilated, as wide as pennies. My God, I thought, this guy is either stone crazy or high. Or both.
The referee skated between us. "Easy does it, boys," he said. "None of that."
"Hey, ref," I said. "That metal thing in your hand, when you blow in it, it makes the little pea vibrate and a loud sound comes out. You should try it. And then you can send this clown to the penalty box for two minutes."
"Let's just play some hockey, boys," he said, skating off with the puck.
The center kept looking at me. Those crazy eyes. I took my mask off. "You got a problem?"
He smiled when he saw my face. "Sorry, didn't realize you were an old man. I'll try to take it easy on you."
When the first period was over, we all got to sit on the bench and wipe our faces off for a few minutes. Nobody said anything. We could hear the other team on their bench, laughing, yelling at each other. Just a little too loud, I thought. A little too happy. Then they started making these noises. It sounded like that stupid chant you hear them do down in Atlanta at the Braves games. The Indian war chant.
Vinnie stood up and looked at them over the partition. Then he looked at us. Eight faces, all Bay Mills Ojibwa. And one old white man. Nobody said a word. They didn't have to.
Here it comes, I thought. I've seen this look before, I've never met an Ojibwa who wasn't a gentle person at heart, who didn't have a fuse about three miles long. But when you finally gave that fuse enough time to burn, watch out. You see it in the casinos every couple months. Some drunken white man makes a scene, starts yelling at the pit boss about how the no-good Indian dealer is cheating him. Doesn't even realize that the pit boss himself is a member of the tribe. If he pushes it far enough he goes right through a window.
I felt a little looser in the second period, watching my Red Sky Raiders take it to the blue team. Vinnie was right about one thingit felt good to use my body again. For something other than cutting wood or shoveling snow, anyway. If this was a mistake, it certainly wasn't a big one. It wouldn't rank up there with the other major mistakes of my life. Like getting married when I was twenty-three years old, just out of baseball, not sure what I was going to do with my life. Not a good reason to get married.
Or letting myself get talked into becoming a private eye. And everything that happened after that.
Or Sylvia. Letting myself fall in love with her. Yes, I'll say it. The puck is in the other end. I'm skating back and forth in front of my net, wondering why I'm thinking of these things. But yes, I'll say it. I loved her. "I've been hiding up here," she told me. "I've been hiding from the world. I think you are, too, whether you admit it or not." And then she left. Just like that. "I hope I've touched your life." The last thing she said to me. What a melodramatic college-girl thing to say. I hope I've touched your life.
Yeah, Sylvia. You touched my life. You touched my life the same way a tornado touches a trailer park.
The puck coming this way. The blue center behind it. The sound of his skates in the empty arena. Snick snick snick snick.
Funny how things come into your mind at a time like this. It used to happen in baseball. I'd be settling under a pop fly and I'd think of something else in my life with a sudden clarity like it was the first time I'd ever thought of it.
Like my biggest mistake of all. A madman's apartment in Detroit. Aluminum foil on the walls. My partner and I frozen with fear, watching the gun in his hand.
Snick snick snick snick.
Sylvia. I am in her bed and she is looking down at me. We have just finished making love in the bed she shares every night with her husband. He is my friend, but I don't care. She owns me.
The skater is fast. He's the best player on the ice, probably the best player this little Thursday night hockey league will ever see. He looks up at me. A peek over his shoulder. The other players are far behind. Time slows down. It's something every athlete knows, an unspoken understanding between us. It's just him and me.
I didn't pull my gun in time. I waited too long. I am shot and my partner is shot and we are both on the ground. There is so much blood. It all comes back to me. Not as urgently as it once did. I don't dream about it much anymore. I don't need the pills to make it through the nights. But it still comes back. I am lying on the floor and my partner is next to me.
I come out of the net to cut off the angle. He shoots. No! It's a fake. He pulls the puck back. I can feel myself falling backward. He's going to skate right around me and slip the puck into the open net. Unless I can knock the puck away. My only chance. I jab at it with my stick as I fall.
I hit the puck and my stick goes between his legs. He trips and slides face first into the boards. Then he is up, his gloves thrown to the ice. I take off my gloves, my mask. He throws a punch at me and misses. I grab him by the jersey and we dance the hockey fight dance. You can't find any leverage to throw a good punch when you're on skates. You just hold on and try to pull the other guy's shirt over his head. It's a funny thing to watch when you're not one of the guys dancing.
The man's eyes were wide with bloodlust and whatever the hell chemicals he was flying on. "Take it easy," I said. "I'm sorry."
"The fuck you're sorry," he said. Spit and sweat hitting me in the face. All around us the other players in the same dance, every man picking his own partner according to how much they really felt like fighting. The old referee was skating around us, blowing his whistle. I guess he finally remembered how it works.
"I didn't mean to trip you," I said. "Just calm down."
"Fucking Indians," he said.
"I'm not an Indian," I said.
"Yeah, fuck that," he said. "I know, you're a Native fucking American."
I started laughing. I couldn't help it.
"What's so funny?" he said. "Did I say something funny?"
"You always get high when you play hockey?" I said.
"The fuck you talking about?"
"You're higher than the space shuttle," I said. "If I were still a cop I'd have to arrest you. Skating while impaired."
He gave me a good push and skated away. The dance was over. "Fucking Indians," he said.
We finished the game. Vinnie scored once in that period. Another of his teammates scored in the third period to tie the game at 2-2. I made a couple nice saves to keep us tied.
In the last minute of the game, my new friend the blue center had an open shot at me. He wound up and launched a rocket. No slapshots, my ass. I got a glove on it, knocked it just high enough to hit the crossbar with a loud ringing sound that reverberated through the entire arena.
The game ended. There would be no overtime. The next game was ready to start, as soon as they got us out of there and gave the Zamboni a chance to take a quick run over the ice.
He glared at me, breathing hard.
I look back on that moment now, the two of us facing each other on the ice. I wonder what I would have done if I had known what would happen in the next few days. I probably would have hit him in the face with my hockey stick. Or broken off the end and jabbed him in the neck. But of course, I had no way of knowing. At that moment, he was just another hotshot asshole hockey player, and I was the old man who just took away his third goal.
"No hat trick today," I said to him. "Looks like the Cowboys and Indians have to settle for a tie."